The Differences between Self-Help, Self-Care, and Soul-Care (and Why You Need All Three)

Posted on September 21, 2020

Self-help, self-care, and soul-care: you may recognize these words from personal blogs and published books that promise to help improve your life. But what can self-help, self-care, and soul-care actually do for us? What are the differences between them? And how should we respond as Christians?

For some, an instinctual Christian response might be that self-help and self-care are unessential at best and self-centered at worst, encouraging us to focus entirely on our own efforts and needs. Only soul-care, which encourages reliance on God, is beneficial. But what if we really need all three? What if soul-care isn’t opposed to self-help and self-care, and what if they work together to help us grow as whole persons?

First, we need to understand the important (but sometimes subtle) differences between each.

Self-Help: A Beneficial or Detrimental Mindset?

Self-help is almost self-explanatory; it is our own efforts to become healthier, more successful, or otherwise “better” people. Popular self-help books promise to help us achieve anything from a trimmer physique to improved confidence to increased wealth, which are not bad goals in themselves. But when self-help becomes self-obsession, it can distract us from other essential pieces of our lives, such as investing in relationships and pursuing God’s will for us.

A self-help mindset is generally characterized by the following traits:

  • an emphasis on bettering oneself through personal growth or improvement in a specific area, such as boosting confidence or eating better

  • a focus on measuring outward progress, such as achieving a professional goal or increasing physical fitness

  • a dependence on self-initiative and follow-through for success

Many of us have probably heard pastors and other Christians warn that a self-help mindset can cause us to depend on ourselves more than on God. But when our trust is properly placed in God, a self-help mindset can be both useful and necessary to spiritual growth. I personally benefited from this mindset a few years ago when I wanted to develop a regular prayer habit, but it wasn’t happening on its own.

I needed to take initiative, make a plan, and find accountability to accomplish my goal. So I signed up for a prayer retreat that required weekly class attendance, spiritual direction, and an hour of daily, private prayer—for seven months. You read that right: one hour of prayer, every day, for seven months (yeah, I was sweating too).

I had a lofty goal, a plan to get there, and a driving desire to achieve it. I could do this. I would do this. But my go-getter, self-help mindset alone wouldn’t be enough.

That’s because a self-help plan is only sustainable with a self-care regimen.

Self-Care: More than Bubble Baths and Shopping Sprees?

Any self-help plan worth pursuing will require work, but it will be hard to keep making progress towards your goal without pausing regularly to “recharge your batteries.” This is where self-care comes in!

Though popularly thought of as justification for seemingly frivolous splurges such as massages, shopping sprees, and pints of ice cream, the purpose of self-care is to decompress and recharge from the stress of life. Self-care has as many different forms as there are unique individuals, so it can definitely include spa days and moose tracks. But it also encompasses more practical applications such as sleep, exercise, and healthy eating.

Some of the characteristics of self-care include:

  • an emphasis on stress management and mental, emotional, and/or psychological wellbeing

  • a view of success that is more arbitrary and can be achieved through multiple means ranging from practical to frivolous, as long as it lowers stress and recharges oneself

  • the self-awareness to monitor stress levels and to know which approach to self-care would be most effective for (e.g. taking a nap, going for a walk, indulging in a treat, etc.)

My prayer retreat recognized the importance of self-care and addressed it in the introductory session, appropriately titled “boot camp” (no joke, that’s what it was called). Besides the obvious necessities of getting enough sleep and adjusting our schedules to allow for an hour of daily prayer, other recommendations seemed to have little to do with prayer itself—things like a comfy chair, a cozy blanket, a scented candle, and a cup of coffee or tea.

Praying for an hour every day suddenly seemed less like a drudgery to endure and more like a ritual to look forward to. And that was the point. The retreat leaders knew that incorporating self-care would sustain rather than hinder a rigorous prayer habit by helping us enjoy our prayer time instead of dreading it.

Eager to follow this advice, I created a “prayer corner” in my room consisting of my black-and-white floral print easy chair, a string of white Christmas lights framing my bookcase, and a shelf arranged with my journaling Bible, colored pens, and retreat binder. My French press was ready, my alarm was set, and I was heading to bed an hour early.

Driven by a self-help mindset and motivated by some essential self-care, I was ready to become the person of prayer I desired to be. But self-help plus self-care is not a fail-proof formula for personal growth—not without the third essential element of soul-care.

Soul-Care: A Standalone Spiritual Practice or a Piece of a Larger Puzzle?

Soul-care is more difficult to define because we don’t know our souls or what they need as well as God does, since he’s the one who created them. What we do know is that spiritual practices and disciplines—including Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and fellowship— nurture and sustain our souls.

Soul-care often has the following characteristics:

  • an emphasis on spiritual growth and wellbeing

  • a view of success that is much more arbitrary, requiring dependence on God for fruition from one’s efforts at practicing soul-care

  • spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Scripture reading, but with no “one-size-fits-all” formula or “10-step” program

Soul-care is never self-made. Ultimately, it is God who takes care of our souls in and through the spiritual disciplines we practice.

I initially invested in the prayer retreat because I knew I needed to pray more. I wanted to work through some things in my life, including disappointed dreams, failed ministry plans, and long seasons of waiting. But underneath all that, I recognized that God may have a different and better plan for my life (he did). I needed some soul-care, but I couldn’t achieve that only by my own willpower, like I could have with self-help or self-care.

In the seven months of the prayer retreat, I learned firsthand the value of self-help, self-care, and soul-care in my personal and spiritual growth. I saw how these three elements are less of an exact formula and more of a rhythmic dance, working together in harmony to create space for God to work in my life. And through them, he did far more than I expected or imagined—but that’s a story for another post.

How might you need to focus on self-help, self-care, or soul-care (or all three) to allow God to work in your own life?

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